Should algebra 2 be required? Michigan legislator says no. Research says yes

Not everyone wants to go to college. But requiring algebra 2 has increased college enrollment, according to a Michigan State University study.

Michigan high school students would no longer be required to take Algebra 2 to earn a diploma under a bill introduced again this term in the Michigan House of Representatives.

“Through college and law school and a 40-year career, I can’t recall an instance of using Algebra 2,” said bill sponsor Gary Howell, R-North Branch. “What is the point of making students take this if they have no career intentions to make use of this?”

But the benefits of algebra 2 go far beyond quadratic equations, says Soobin Kim, a researcher in the Michigan State University School of Education. Michigan’s low-income students were more likely to enroll in college after the algebra 2 mandate took effect in 2008, and middle- and upper-income students were more likely to earn college degrees, according to two research papers authored by Kim.

You can read the papers here and here.

The algebra 2 requirement, part of the Michigan Merit Curriculum that mandates four years of math courses to earn a high school diploma, also narrowed the academic opportunity gaps between students attending rich and poor schools.

“The policy equalizes opportunity for the disadvantaged,” Kim said. “We are not trying to send everyone to college, but if the policy provides opportunity to take advanced courses, which gives them more options as far as career trajectory, then why not?”

The legislative effort to water down the Michigan Merit Curriculum is the latest struggle between those who feel schools and students should have more options, and those who argue for higher academic standards. Michigan students score in the bottom third in the nation, and the percent of adults with college degrees is below the national average.

Increasing college grads is a priority for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, as well as for many in the business community who say they can’t find enough skilled employees.

Related: Whitmer wants free college in Michigan. Can that cut the skills gap?

House Bill 4271 would continue the requirement of four years of math, but students could swap in a statistics or financial literacy course instead of algebra 2 to meeting state standards.  

“One of the stumbling blocks our students face is that there is so much required of a college prep nature in the high school curriculum that it is  hard for them to meet all those requirements and still put in a half day at of career tech,” Howell told Bridge.

“For a student who wants to be a skilled tradesmen, a position that pays better than some positions that (require a college degree), I don’t like to see them discouraged by being made to take a course they see no value in.”

Currently, students can avoid algebra 2 by taking career-tech programs that are approved for the algebra 2 credit through the Michigan Department of Education. But that’s too narrow of an exception for Howell, who said he believes anyone who doesn’t plan to go to college shouldn’t have to take such an advanced math class.

A similar bill passed the House last session but died in the Senate in the lame-duck legislative session. Howell said he’s hopeful the bill will be more successful this year.

Student-level data analyzed by researchers at MSU and the University of Michigan show the algebra 2 requirement has had a generally positive impact on Michigan students.

According to the research:

  • The likelihood of passing algebra 2 among low-achieving students increased 26 percent after the mandate took effect. High-achieving students passed the class at a 6 percent higher clip than similar students before the mandate.
  • Students in schools with a high percentage of low-income students took more math classes, took more rigorous math classes, and passed those classes at a higher rate. There was no change among students at wealthier schools, indicating to Kim and his colleagues that the mandate was providing academic opportunities to students who didn’t have those opportunities before the Michigan Merit Curriculum kicked in.
  • There was no impact on ACT scores, but college enrollment increased by 3 percent.
  • The mandate also appeared to increase the likelihood of students majoring in STEM-related fields in college.

About half of states require algebra 2 in high school. Florida and Texas  dropped their requirement in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Texas dropped the requirement because it was hurting the state’s high school graduation rates, Kim said. The opposite has happened in Michigan – the statewide graduation rate increased from 79 percent in 2008 to 83 percent in 2018, in the period when algebra 2 has been a graduation requirement.

“If there is no (negative) change in graduation rates and it is helping course-taking outcomes and college outcomes, I do not see a reason they (Michigan legislators) are trying to remove it,” Kim said. “From a researcher’s point of view, I think there are more benefits to have algebra 2 than to not having it.”

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Matt Korolden
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:26am

The MIGOP is once again ignoring research and replacing it with baseless ideology.

Let educators teach.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:33am

I teach at one of Michigan's community colleges. Most students do NOT need Algebra II. What they do need are the ability to read and comprehend, think critically, and communicate both orally and in writing. Even getting through Algebra I is difficult for many, resulting in students dropping out of college before earning a degree. I thought we were striving to increase the number of college graduates in Michigan, not shut them out with irrelevant requirements.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 3:45pm

Republican seems to not like people who can think!!

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 5:30pm

One of the experiences I have had with schools is the lack of a theme linking classes, each is taught with focus on the individual class with no connectivity to other classes.
You mention the need for comprehension, I my experience was/has been the concentrated attention and thinking [which seem necessary to comprehend ideas and concepts] are needed when learning/doing Algebra II problems was more than I had need/used prior to the course, so it would seem that Algebra II does meet one of your criteria for what students need.
Critical thinking [the ability to analyze, evaluate, and apply judgment is of importance to students, those also seem to be traits or activities that are required while learning the lessons in Algebra II.

As for communication [which is invaluable no matter the career] this one is more dependent on the style of the teacher, do they require the student to explain their thinking/answer or to they trust to themselves evaluate the students work. I hope it is the former then to be able to explains ones work to a class of your peers is an effective tool for learning how to communicate, how to frame you thinking to communicate, to consider you the audience you are communicating to, the how to deliver the communications, all seems applicable to what you consider applicable to a student.
I see Algebra II and excellent setting/topic to practice those skills that should be a theme that is include in all the classes, and should be presented as applicable in every class and in every class each of the elements you mentioned [reading, comprehension, thinking critically, and communication] should be pointed out as to it is part of the class/topic.
To me much of the resistance to Algebra II is the antithesis of the phrase, 'I'm not a math person.' or 'I'm not a numbers person.' when someone does want to do an arithmetic problem. In a technology future what better way to learn and apply the skills need in each subject and in life that apply them in a course that is challenging for each of the skills we value.

Robert Honeyman
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 7:45pm

High school. The issue is high school, not college. I'm not sure that there are state mandated core curriculum standards in community colleges. Are there?

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:44am

The same goes for a requirement to take Chemistry or Physics to graduate. Two years of a foreign language is also crazy for all students. Get real and gear programs to students real needs in life. R.L.

Kevin in Waterford
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:51am

The continued dumbing down of society. Principles that teach THINKING have value. And I use advanced math daily - not the equations, but the math done by machine that affects my every day life.

richard scott
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:54am

In a prior life I taught math to high school students. 55 years ago I instituted a course in shop math for the boys in the Episcopalian prep school designed for kids from dysfunctional families or doing poorly in school. A Fsrm school and boys worked on fsrm or in kitchen or maintenance.
Then there was no requirement for graduation in RI. For college advancing through math essential, why pre med requires calculus unknown, unless like organic chemistry the tougher courses separate out those who can achieve.

Schools need more civics and humanities

Jim C
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 9:00am

Don't confuse coorilation with causation. A2 does not create more college apps. Algebra 2 should be offered as an option. Requiring it for the thousands of students who choose career paths outside of college is denying them time to learn the skills they need for the sake of skills the bureacrats think they should have.

Fri, 05/03/2019 - 11:32am

YES!! There is no evidence from this article that makes me think researchers are seeing correlation. Algebra 2 is completely unnecessary for a large portion of students. And, for the record, taking a stats class in place of A2 is not dumbing anything down.

Paul Jordan
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 9:17am

This is simply the latest event that illustrates how inappropriate it is for legislators to dictate what should be covered in K-12 education. The political process is appropriate for many things--but not this.
Michigan's educational system has been degraded in part by the zig-zagging that has resulted from legislators imposing their current notions on it. The legislature's primary responsibility is to make sure that the educational system is well-funded. Instead, they have been micromanaging its processes and content.
Until the people insist that they butt out of such details and fulfill their duty to fund the system, education in Michigan will not markedly improve.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 2:41pm


Thu, 05/02/2019 - 2:59pm

Exactly! Likewise why does the legislature tell schools when they can have their start date? Get the government out of education it's been a big fail and causes problems everytime! Give the kids a ticket, voucher, tax credit, donation what ever you want to call it and stay out of it. They have all they can do with figuring out plenty of other problems. But in the end, who is it that wants the government involved in our Ed system as much as possible?

Wed, 05/15/2019 - 5:14pm

Exactly right!

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 9:32am

Most students could use financial literacy classes more than algebra II . Math concepts could be introduced tangentually to literacy concepts that are useful for a lifetime. Of course, any student that wants algebra II should have it available.

Mike Heath
Fri, 05/17/2019 - 7:24am

Taking a personal finance class doesn’t mean you can’t also take Algebra II. I did both along with geometry, trigonometry, two years (or semesters - forgot which) of accounting, and an advanced math class.

And given our schools failure to teach critical thinking as its own class, Algebra II’s reliance on such is even more necessary.

Sun, 05/26/2019 - 9:22am

There is not much data that supports the notion that financial literacy courses in high school have any impact on long-term behavior. These courses do have an impact when the students actually are applying classroom lessons to their real lives, in other words, they can be beneficial when students are applying their new knowledge to their own money.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 9:36am

I think they should remove the requirement and give students more options. Classes such as personal finance and practical, business or shop math would be much more useful to most students and give them practical skills for their futures. Advanced math should be an elective.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 9:43am

Representative Gary Howell has provided a service to the people of Michigan. He has given substantial proof of why lawyers should not be making educational decisions. It's in a lawyer's nature to choose sides and use selected information to argue their point. As opposed to gathering facts and data, then making a decision about the best choice going forward.

Mike Delp
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 9:50am

Republicans are notorious for thinking in 1 dimension. No wonder they don’t like anything beyond that.

Randy Schipper
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 9:53am

Why not require Algebra 2? Because students not aiming for a math-based career would be better prepared for life if they took a solid personal finance class instead. Few students will use the concepts in Algebra 2 outside a classroom. All will have to manage their personal finances.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 10:00am

I saw the headline and said to myself: 'this has got to be proposed by a Republican'.
Bingo! I guess either he or one of his kids flunked Algebra2...
The dumbing down of America's education system.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 3:01pm

Why stop there? How about Algeba 3?

Le Roy G. Barne...
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 10:01am

A number of people (myself included) have a great deal of difficulty with math. If algebra 2 had been a requirement when I was in high school, it's possible I would have been a dropout. Classes in math beyond the introductory level are not necessary for success in life and should not be mandated for all students. Offer the advanced courses as electives, not as dictated instruction.

Kevin in Waterford
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 10:04am

An educated person knows how to think, and algebra is not terribly tough to comprehend. Every day we use the formulas and our lives depend on the results. Just because a computer does it for us doesn’t mean we don’t benefit from the magic of the mathematics.
Don’t dumb down society further by eliminating a subject that teaches us to THINK. A rounded education is much more than teaching a trade. The same goes for arts, history and language skills!

James F Bish
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 10:19am

Big mistake to drop requirement. I attended a rural HS where "business math " could replace Algebra 2. After stint in Army tried to get job in forestry field. To qualify, needed Algebra 2.
Took an extra year in community college to make up HS deficit in Math (costly).

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 10:54am

If any of these students plan to work in an office or in many other fields, Algebra 2 is a must. You don't have to go to college to land an office job, but in most cases you will need Algebra 2 to use formulas in an Excel spreadsheet.

Jeff Wescott
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 11:23am

Are we to follow Texas and Florida as models of educational excellence? I am not surprised that Howell is a Republican: Dumbing-down the curriculum is a Republican goal, as is well-documented in the number of Republican politicians who have expressed their desire to privatize education in America.

Bob Balwinski
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 11:26am

With only 40 years in education including 23 as a HS Mathematics Teacher and 8 as a Mathematics Consultant , I'd still like to comment on this Algebra 2 requirement. The research and data show it's working!!!! Duh!!!
Republican legislators need to be tutored on data-driven decision making versus the "I feel" or "I think" method.
Yes, I'm aware that logic and facts are no match for ideology. Therefore, I expect this requirement to be done away with in the near future. Sad!

Alex Sagady
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 11:18pm

Every STEM practitioner knows that the practical gateway to all science, technology,
mathematics and engineering fields runs through Algebra 2 needed mathematics knowledge.
If you don't have algebra 2, you won't make successful entry into those fields, each area of which
relies on advanced math.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 12:11pm

I don't understand what Rep. Howell sees as an advantage for dropping Algebra II from the curriculum. After working with underrepresented students for over 25 years, I saw the Algebra II requirement challenge them to expect more of themselves and to open doors to more career possibilities.
Does he realize that the majority of CTE tech jobs require Algebra II skills and beyond. This requirement is an equalizer and an important expectation for all our students.

Marc Zigterman
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 12:20pm

Wow. I'm so glad I'm retired.
There is no such thing as "Algebra 2."
This is the kind of thing that drives curriculum experts crazy. What are the specific math skills and knowledge that we want to require students to learn to graduate? And does it matter if they learn those skills in some class called "Algebra 2?" Are there aspects of a typical second year algebra class that are not germane to all and others that are? These are the kinds of questions educators ask.

And some of Kim's comments are disingenuous. Access to advanced classes for every student is good, adding barriers to getting a high school diploma is not. Adding barriers to graduation while failing to increase support in early childhood, elementary and middle school to better prepare students for more challenging curricula? Callous. Solutions for high schools cannot succeed without providing support to earlier grades.

Politicians look at solutions in the short run. Educators need to look at solutions that work from as early as age three through graduation. Michigan's decline in public education coincides with the over-involvement of the Legislature in public education. Graduation requirements as a matter of law should be broad enough to empower educators to educate.

Thomas S.
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 12:24pm

“What is the point of making student take this if they have no career intentions of making use of this?” asks Representative Howell. Well, one argument against dropping the requirement (which already has an exemption clause) would be that very few kids in high school have even the foggiest notion of what their career path might be. Instead of more legislation to weaken already abysmal student performance how about putting the focus on better school funding, better teacher pay, and raising educational standards so we can compete for the best 21st century jobs.

Scott Baker
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 12:35pm

Here's a reminder how the original Algebra 2 mandate came about from a post I wrote in 2006. The complete piece is available at

Here's an excerpt:
A centerpiece of the Michigan Merit Core is the inclusion of Algebra 2 as a requirement for graduation for everyone (though students may opt out by chopping down the largest tree in the forest with a herring). And where did this masterstroke come from? If you can't guess by now, you haven't been paying attention (and you're not going to do very well on the quiz either).

Achieve, Inc. of course.

Pointing to a 1999 study by Department of Education researcher Clifford Adelman (, Achieve, Inc. claimed that students who took math classes beyond Algebra 2 were more successful at earning college degrees. On paper this appears to be true. What the data does not show is whether or not it was the higher math they had taken that caused these students to be more successful. Stop and think for a moment. In my experience, Algebra 2 and the math beyond it are generally elective classes. Students who voluntarily enroll in these challenging courses, I have observed, tend to be stronger, more motivated students to begin with and likely to do well in college because of innate qualities they already possess (e.g intelligence, perseverance) prior to taking trigonometry or calculus.

Both Adelman and Achieve were careful not to make the claim that higher math caused students to be more successful in college. They didn't have to. All they had to do was point to the (simplified) numbers and imply that such was the case, then let the easily fooled stumble to the desired, but unfounded, conclusion. Of course, there's also the allure of requiring Algebra 2 for everyone. It just sounds so rigorous, doesn't it?

I hope Mr. Kim's research claims aren't used as glibly to advance (or retain) dubious education fads. Note here that I am not against the teaching of Algebra 2, but I see no need for it to be a requirement. It is more an obstacle than an opportunity. If it demonstrates true value, you should have no trouble convincing students to elect to take the course.

Robert Donelson
Thu, 05/02/2019 - 1:17pm

The beginning picture of a math problem on this page shows a integral calculus problem. That is not algebra 2. So I skipped reading most of the article.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:46pm

That's the first thing I noticed too. As a HS math teacher I taught at least one Algebra 2 class each year and it's definitely not a problem one would find in an that class.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 1:31pm

Representative Howell is absolutely dead wrong that students who don't plan to get bachelor degrees don't need Algebra II. As it is now sequenced, Algebra II is a prerequisite for Trigonometry, a working knowledge of which is essential for machinists, carpenters, die makers, plumbers, drafters/designers, millwrights, tool makers, and multiple other skilled trades. Michigan high school students can and do learn enough Algebra II and Trigonometry in MDE approved Career and Technical Education programs to enter most Community College skilled trades certificate programs and qualify for some paid apprenticeship programs, but apparently that isn't good enough for Rep Howell. Why, I wonder, would he want to condemn high school graduates to having to take, and pay for remedial math courses if they ever change their career path from what they intended to do at age 15 or 16?

However, I would like to recommend that Michigan amend the MMC to allow students who don't want to take or who don't pass Algebra II on their first try be allowed to substitute Statistics instead, with parental agreement. A knowledge of Statistics is probably more important and more useful than Algebra II to college-bound students seeking degrees in business, communications, and liberal arts. And an understanding of statistics sufficient to judge the reasonableness of various study claims of effectiveness, safety, or "progress" is critical to becoming a well-informed citizen and consumer.

But all students and parents should be fully informed by their school districts that Algebra II, Trigonometry, Statistics and Pre-Calculus are extremely important for almost all STEM programs, including many skilled trades and technical certificate programs, as well as most BS college degrees. Therefore, Michigan's normal practice should be for all but remedial math students to take Algebra I during their 8th grade year.

P.S. The illustration for this article shows a problem in integral calculus, not algebra. This shows a woeful lack of mathematical knowledge on the part of the Bridge staff.

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 3:23pm

"Algebra II is a prerequisite for Trigonometry, a working knowledge of which is essential for machinists, carpenters, die makers, plumbers, drafters/designers, millwrights, tool makers, and multiple other skilled trades. Michigan high school students can and do learn enough Algebra II and Trigonometry in MDE approved Career and Technical Education programs to enter most Community College skilled trades "
Sorry that's my thing, and you are nuts! Most, 98%, tradepeople don't know it, never use it or need Algebra 2 or Trig, let alone would they pass it if they tried.

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 12:29pm

I'm amazed at how often you comment about things you don't understand. I'm an engineer who works with machinists. I'd be extremely skeptical of a mill operator who didn't understand trigonometry, and I definitely wouldn't trust them to make more than basic cylindrical components

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 3:45pm

NO one year of algebra is enought. I had 6 years of math in high school out side of collage algebra one was enought!!!

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 8:24pm

Increasing pass rates do not mean increasing knowledge or skills. Michigan's high-stakes pressure on high schools to increase graduation rates have effects in the classroom. If a student must pass a class to graduate and a high school has to make sure they graduate, um, figure it out. Not sure if Bridge has looked into credit recovery and graduation rates?

Thu, 05/02/2019 - 11:36pm

What are the odds that most schools either created a watered down version of Algebra 2 or watered down their entire algebra 2 curriculum when the mandate took effect? I know we created a 2nd tier because there are a lot of kids who could never pass our rigorous algebra 2 curriculum.

Fri, 05/03/2019 - 8:28am

Do away with it u have a lot of people making decision on this that have never held a real job

Fri, 05/03/2019 - 10:26am

Two points. First, it seems to me that there is a causation/correlation issue here/ Students who elect to take Algebra 2 or who do well at it are almost certainly on a college track to begin with. There are many reasons to question the value of this requirement for students who are not on a STEM track.
Second, much more emphasis needs to be placed on writing skills. I coach writers and have taught first year college English. I see students who are totally unprepared for college writing, some of whom come from some of our most well-regarded school districts. For the most part, these students are bright and curious, but they lack critical thinking skills as well as the ability to write a series of coherent sentences. I agree with the commentator who said that we need more emphasis on humanities and civics, both of which develop critical thinking and writing skills.

Ken Tokarz
Mon, 05/06/2019 - 6:49am

How much money could we save if we reduced music and the arts in K12 education. I believe that it would be enough to fund special ed, young 5's and math needed for every student.

Mon, 05/06/2019 - 12:31pm

"What if we made it so only wealthy kids have a chance to learn an instrument or any sort of artistic skill?"

There's more to life than being a useful wage laborer.

Wed, 05/08/2019 - 1:02pm

Why not, without expectations about student learning why should we have music or the arts, why have Algebra II or any of STEM subjects, why not only focus on what the students want/like, or what the parents want/like, what readers of Bridge want/like?
Our expectations for our children was about learning not about the individual subjects, it was about learning how to learn [so they could learn post high school], about the discipline and persistence of learning to use in life post high school, to learn they were more capable than others said. So it didn't matter what was required they took challenging courses, STEM subjects beyond the required [Algebra II before it was required], taking shop, music didn't fit that kind of schedule.
My wife and I have learned more about life, personal achievement, serving others, being creative in areas other than music , parenting, and even learning about how we face challenges are important parts of life. We have also found that being useful in our labors to earn a wage has been a significant part of life, and has proven to be a building block of the other import parts of life. Music is nice, but hasn't been an important factor in building a valuable life.